Mike Johanns
Sen. Mike Johanns

Rolling along Interstate 80 on his way to Grand Island on a sunny afternoon, Mike Johanns ponders the consequences of Republican congressional gains this November.

A fresh opportunity for bipartisanship, compromise, cooperation, Nebraska's Republican senator suggests.

"The White House will have checks and balances; there'll be more give and take," he says.

"It really, really changes things."

In addition, Johanns says, projected GOP gains would lead to greater congressional oversight of the executive branch, especially if Republicans grasp majority control of either the House or Senate.

He experienced that first-hand as U.S. secretary of agriculture in the Bush administration when Democrats seized control of both in 2006.

All in all, Johanns says, checks and balances are good for government.

"You work in a bipartisan way to get things done," he says, "or they won't get done."

Johanns has just left Chances "R," where about 80 members of York's service clubs joined him for lunch in the colorful back room with its red brick, lighted beer signs and wood floor.

Informally clad in slacks and a blue Oxford shirt, Nebraska's freshman senator briefed his audience on deficit spending and the rising national debt with the help of charts borrowed from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-1st District.

Then, he answered 16 questions before hitting the road for a tour of the spanking new State Fairgrounds at Fonner Park in Grand Island.

"I'm hearing those same kind of fiscal concerns everywhere I go," Johanns says as his vehicle heads down the road. "All over the state, from Arthur to Omaha.

"I think that issue is front and center."

Johanns says he's eagerly awaiting recommendations of the president's bipartisan deficit reduction commission.

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With the nation facing annual trillion-dollar budget deficits and a ballooning national debt, he says, "I think this is the issue of our time."

Johanns won't commit to support a package that includes tax hikes along with spending reductions, but says he has "promised to give the recommendations a full and fair read."

"I don't like tax increases," he acknowledges as his cell phone begins to bleep with a trail of incoming messages.

"My hope is we will focus on the spending problem."

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But where to cut?

"I would repeal the health care reform bill first."

Despite projections to the contrary, he says, "it's not a balanced bill; it will add to the deficits."

Republican congressional gains this November could lead to denial or delay of funding for some portions of the health care law, Johanns says.

"But there is so much about the law that is not a funding issue. We could not stop it dead in its tracks."

The reality is that President Barack Obama holds veto power that would protect the legislation from repeal, and Republican efforts to try to junk the law would need to jump the 60-vote barrier in the Senate required to break a filibuster.

The health care bill is just one of the concerns expressed by his constituents, Johanns says.

"They are angry and frustrated. They tell me there is too much government, too much spending, or too much socialism, or that policies are too liberal, and that they feel this country has changed."

Earlier, at York, he said: "The best message I could give to President Obama is to back off."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@ journalstar.com.

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